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Maypole Dance: A Tradition That Dates Back Centuries

By Adeena Hires

Okanogan Living

Like a lot of traditions that have been passed down for many generations, the origin and its history can contradict depending on who’s doing the telling. Such is the case when investigating the influences of the maypole dance from bygone days.

The significance and interpretation will differ to some degree from one county to the next, but the meaning is mostly unanimous – to celebrate the spring and the upcoming summer seasons.

While the exact beginning is debatable, there is evidence that the tradition has existed throughout parts of Europe for around 2 millennium. Typically, the dance goes hand-in-hand with May Day celebrations. Some historians believe it may have originated in Roman Britain, while others say it started in ancient Germany and made its way across Europe to Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

The maypole dance is a ceremonial dance that is performed around a tall pole that is usually garlanded with greenery and flowers. Dancing around a maypole is usually done to music and involves a group of people taking colored ribbon and weaving around each other to create an intricate pattern that steadily creeps down the pole. The dancers’ steps are then reversed to undo the ribbons.

According to Metro, an online magazine, “the tallest maypoles in the world are at Nun Monkton, North Yorkshire (88 feet), Barwick-in-Elmet, West Yorkshire (86 feet), and Welford-on-Avon, Warwickshire (65 feet).”

Closer to home, the maypole dance tradition is continued with third through sixth-grade Oroville students performing the complex steps. The annual May Festival started in 1935 and will be celebrating 89 years this year. The dance has been associated with Oroville’s celebrations since the beginning.

Autumn (Thorndike) Martin has been teaching the traditional dance for nearly 30 years. She started in 1994 when she was assistant coach to Mary Ann May. They won the queen’s choice award that year. The following year May moved away, and Martin said she has, “really enjoyed doing it ever since.”

May made a banner which is still used to this day in the May Festival parade. Currently, Martin is looking for a volunteer to take over teaching the dance. She said next year she would like to be coaching the new coach.

“It’s really rewarding but it’s work,” she said. “It’s also a lot of fun and people remember you forever.”

Martin is looking for someone to carry on the tradition and keep it preserved, so it stays a tradition.

“It’s very important that whoever gets involved wants to carry it on as it,” she said.

The maypole dance tradition has been steadfast because of dedicated instructors over the decades and an abundance of support from many in the community. Not only is the dance routine a tradition, but also the dresses they wear have been the same for generations.

The pinafore (an apron-like garment) isn’t something you will find in stores and has been handmade by community members when needed. Jean Fritz sewed a lot of them as well as Wanda Litrell and Kathy Noel. Amy Wise has been donating and making the hair bows for the past decade to match the girls’ dresses; and Gary Krusoff made the present maypole topper. Martin said her husband, Wade, gets up at 5 a.m. the morning of May Festival and goes out and collects all the fresh lilac flowers used that day during the performance.

Martin herself was a maypole dancer in 1973, and expressed how she has always loved it and it has been a part of her family for generations. Her grandmother was a part of May Festival from the beginning and Martin’s aunts danced as well as their children. One year there were three generations of Martin’s family involved when her aunt Joyce (who danced when she was a child) played the piano for the routine while her (Joyce’s) grandchildren danced, and Martin was instructing.

While conversing with Martin, her beautiful character radiated throughout and her encouragement towards the dancers was meant with devotion and enthusiasm.

Brisa Mathis, fourth grade, said she loves being a part of the maypole dance team “because she gets to spend time with Autumn.” Additionally, third-grader Rebel Dove said she has “looked up to it ever since kindergarten” and her sister Destiny was also involved for five years.

Another child added that she enjoys practice because they get to hang out with their friends.

Brileigh Barker, fourth grade, said she is involved because “I wanted to be in the parade.”

Sixth grader Ahnika Russel echoed Barker saying it’s her “goal to be in the parade every year."

For Violet Thompson, fourth grade, she was involved last year, and said she joined because “she likes skipping and it’s a big part of May Day.”

Mayeli Bugarin, fourth grade, said she does it because “it’s a tradition and all my aunts, cousins, and mom have done it” and she likes “serving the community.”

The girls started in February and put in 20 practices prior to their main performance. They dedicate this much time because there are many parts that make up the dance (such as spacing and keeping the ribbons stretched tight without slack).

They learn poise, confidence and stamina.

“There’s more to it than just dancing, and not everyone can skip” Martin said.

The dancers travel a mile and a half during the parade- and they are skipping and smiling the whole time.

“We do a lot of different training,” Martin said. “The maypole dancers have to learn how to perform, so I take them through poise practice.”

She also recognized that poise is a taught life skill that can be used throughout their life and a tool they can wield whenever they need to feel emboldened. Every year the maypole dance draws large crowds that the dancers perform for.

“I never realized how closely they were watched until John Sylvester approached me one year and says ‘you know why there are all these orchardists watching? It’s because how well the maypole dancers dance determines how good of a harvest there will be in Oroville.’ No pressure,” laughed Martin.

Some of the dancers also go on to be May Festival royalty. Martin also stressed that, “I don’t ever want money to be an issue for a child not to join, we have sponsors throughout the community that are willing to help when needed.” Boys are also welcome to join.

Martin starts the recruitment each January by dressing in her pinafore and beautiful handmade hat and going into Oroville school to encourage children to be a part of this special May Day tradition.

So, as you watch the maypole dance this year, May 13, remember the dedication it takes and the countless hours put in behind the scenes. And you can be sure to spot Martin standing by with a smile on her face and whistle in hand as the maypole tradition unfolds for another year.



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